The spirit of the wilderness will "speak" to you when listened to deeply enough. Not a yell or a physical word, but a feeling and a noise. We have had a noisy and relentless river bubble to us to look for another way, we have heard a tree billow a breath to avoid the next step, we have heard a meadow sigh a whisper to take a break, heard a mountain peak echo to us to look around, and stared directly into a mountain lion's eyes and heard no thought or voice whatsoever, just a distilled and raw version where the wilderness spoke so loudly, there was no noise at all. This is about the "voice" of the wild and how the deepest message is the one when there is no sound and no thought, just the moment.
Glacier National Park, one of the most beautiful places in the world.
One of our rawest and most connected moments to nature came to us in Glacier National Park. We would never and will never seek out these moments, not only because when looking will they never be found, but because the beauty is stumbling into it and listening to yourself and the wilderness when inside of it. At this point we were finishing our last of the Big 3 trail systems, the AT, PCT, and completing the CDT. We had close to 7,000 miles of listening to the wilderness, and we had learned how to not speak back but listen fully to what it had to say. We had been cuddled to sleep by a New Mexico cow, chased by a Mojave Green Rattlesnake in the desert of California, mimicked the mountain goats as they hopped from rock to rock in Montana, and sacrificed pints upon pints upon pints of our blood to the blood-sucking mosquitoes of every state. We had touched the raw wounds of a tree as it wept its sap down our hands from an encounter with a grizzly bear, we had been plagued by a squirrel dropping atomic bombs in the shape of pinecones the size of your head, upon our head in Oregon, we had woken up at 4 a.m. with the owls as we shared the sunrise, we had thirsted for and hallucinated water with the antelope in Wyoming, we harnessed in our curiosity to peak our head out the tent as the curious black bear sniffed about our camp, and we had climbed the tallest mountain in the continuous 48 states with marmots for company as they chirped their applause. We had flown with the hawks and seen through their eyes the vastness of the land, we had been as small as the salamander in the Smokies, one step changing your entire world, and we had felt untold amount of eyes upon us, thinking, pondering, and wondering what this "inhuman" human was doing in this environment. We had time and we had learned to listen to the wilderness.
Up close, tried to mimic their pace up the mountain....impossible but fun!
Not just the animals though spoke their own language, the land itself had a special voice. We had learned to listen to this voice as well. We wept with the sky in the beauty of the sound as rain fell upon us, and heard in each drop the power to give and take life. We vaporized each breath in the heat of the sun as it scorched the Earth and heard unbridled love that could not contain itself. We heard each mood of the sky and listened to the warnings it gave before a storm to seek shelter. We breathed with the trees as one being, a cycle of breath where one begins and the other ends is never defined. We listened to the mountains, for an hour, a day, a month, and finally years, and only than would they accept that we were a moment, even the tiniest fraction of a moment in their existence where millennia can be a blink of an eye, would they speak their voice that is so old and slow that they are still speaking to us the same word they had started saying years ago; "Come".
The voice is continuing to tell us and we will always continue to listen..
Even without finishing the word, even with knowing the mountains will never finish the word in our lifetime, we heard and we continue to listen. Every part of the wilderness has a universal language but every dialect of every creature and every moment is different. It is a life-long learning process, and we have never failed to be surprised at a new language or new dialect that is introduced to us, if you listen there is always something new. We had heard the dialect of the "watcher" on our skin and upon the wind, but we had never heard the speech of the watcher eye to eye. We had heard the Earth tell us the "watcher" was around and to be careful. We had heard the squirrels chirp their anxious caution in the forest. We had heard the birds of the desert spot "the watcher" from on high and lead us to safety. We had heard the cackle of firewood around a campfire spit warnings to "the watcher" to stay away from its glow. We had listened and heard so many moments and dialects around "the watcher" but had never heard their dialect directly, until we were one-on-one with them and eye-to-eye five feet away and heard nothing.
Of course we do not have a picture of that moment! We wish we did, but impossible to have captured! The moment will live in our minds though forever!
As we walked along the path through another valley before a high-alpine climb, the valley was already speaking in whispers. The sun was slowly and hesitantly peeking above the horizon as if it was cautious. We heard one bird greet the sun in a hushed tone, before their voice was abruptly cut off, as if they needed to stay quiet. So, we continued to listen to the valley itself, because it was what was speaking the loudest this morning. The valley spoke of a presence that was watching not only it but us. As we continued on, we heard the brush to our side whisper "stop and look over here". Having been in the wilderness long enough at this point, when such a clear message comes across and the language is spoken so clearly it is paramount to listen to the reason of the wild. We stopped and looked upon the bush. It was one we had seen thousands of time, what was the valley trying to say? So, instead we listened, we continued to look upon the brush but more so with our senses than our eyes. A leaf twisted here, and a leaf twisted there, and we saw there was actually a tiny window within the brush. What was on the other side of this window, we had never expected to see so close.
"The watcher" stared back at us through their window: a mountain lion. One of the most elusive creatures in the wilderness. We call it the watcher because you can almost guarantee that if you frequent the outdoors where they live, even if you have not seen one, more than one has seen you. They are like a ghost of the wilderness, hovering over the ground soundless as if they were not a two hundred pound killing machine. They can stay so still and blend so well with their environment that you could have even been looking directly at a mountain lion far away and seen nothing but rock and sand. Thus, "the watcher" because they continue to see everything that goes through their territory, we are just but guests that they chose to allow through.
We looked back through our photo archives and actually found the valley, with "The Window"!
We could count the whiskers on the mountain lion's face, they were so close. What separated us was a few feet of open path, and the window of brush that we stared at each other through. A world away, but also one pounce away. All sound ceased to exist, all thoughts ceased to be, we were not outside anymore but very much within the world of the wilderness, the true wild. We could see the browns of its eyes shift as it followed our pupils, we could see its muscles tense and bulge as it shifted hundreds of pounds of muscle without a noise, we could see each individual hair upon its snout bristle as it inhaled our scent. We were watching these moments, but it also felt as if we were part of these moments. As our eyes remained locked, it was as if we were shifting our hundreds of pounds upon massive paws, as if we looked upon this curious human animal in our environment, as if we inhaled the scent of an unknown entity in the world of earthly smells. There was no longer a conversation between the wilderness and ourselves anymore. There was no longer a distinction between the listener and the talker. The worlds had smashed together in this moment, and we were the wilderness, the valley that these two feet stood upon, the bush that the mountain lion peered through, and the mountain lion itself deciding in this moment what to do. We had never experienced until then, an indistinguishable moment in which we were completely untethered from ourselves and part of ourselves at the same time, complete wilderness cohesion. We stood upon the ground but were also the ground that was stood upon.
The watcher and us were the same in that moment. The embodiment of what we believe to be the raw wilderness was weighing us, or were we weighing ourselves? As our eyes remained locked they were weighing if we belonged. We felt not as the condemned but as a part of the judgment itself. We believe as our eyes remained fixed to each other, everything that needed to be communicated was without one noise, no thoughts, no talking, no listening, only pure communication. Before we knew it we felt the judgment had been passed. Never moving, never blinking, the physical distance between myself and their window of leaves no longer felt like a separation to maintain for safety, but a separation to maintain out of respect. We had been placed back down upon the other side, back fully within ourselves, and looked upon the 5ft distance again, and realized we had already crossed it before, the crossing was no longer of any importance, we had been on the other side together, and we had recognized together that while continuing along our own journeys as separate entities we would remain connected. We had heard the true voice of the wilderness that was always within ourselves.
John Muir..... enough said.
So, were there any thoughts, questions, feelings, or movements that we can think back upon on how we reacted to this interaction? Honestly, all we recall is looking into each other's eyes and that before we knew it they were gone. It could have been 5 minutes or it could have been 30 minutes. We heard absolutely nothing around us, felt absolutely nothing around us, only the feeling of absolutely everything within us.
Listen to the wilderness, it speaks frequently. Sometimes the voice is softer and you have to listen harder, sometimes the voice can be deafening and you cannot escape it. Sometimes the voice is the wind, sometimes it is the land, and sometimes it is a mountain lion and yourself. There are many dialects to the wilderness, and listening is a life-long practice. If you are committed enough you will always discover new conversations and new meanings within it. The moments will continue to change but the voice will always be there, speaking to you. If you're lucky enough, eventually a moment will come that there is no voice at all, and in those moments when you look back you will hear the most true and loudest voice of the wilderness and yourself.
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P:S: This article was heavy in symbolism and metaphors. If you run into a mountain lion in the wild, honestly there is not much you can do, it is their decision on what that moment will look like. Yet, there are some techniques that will keep you safer. Always maintain eye-contact with a mountain lion, they are an ambush predator and if they know you are watching it might dissuade an attack. Also, NEVER run or turn your back, this initiates the predator/prey response. If it does continue to advance on you, just like a bear, make as much noise as possible and try to make yourself look intimidating. Use your trekking poles, use your backpack, use a rock or anything to look bigger. While a mountain lion attack is extremely unlikely (EXTREMELY UNLIKELY,) if you are attacked, unlike a black bear, do not act dead, FIGHT BACK! Also, if you are hiking through mountain lion territory, consider bringing bear spray. While not meant for mountain lions specifically, having a defensive strategy can put your mind at ease. Act slowly, act rationally, and take time to think. Once again we want to say mountain lions are wild animals, and I used heavy symbolism and metaphors in this article, but while they are beautiful they should also be treated with the respect due to any other wild predator. We do not want to scare anyone because like we said an attack is extremely unlikely, but you should take care when hiking in mountain lion territory and pay attention to your surroundings. We included an article by the NPS (National Park System) if you wish to read more about encounters with Mountain Lion's.